The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
JOINT WINNER OF THE 2019 BOOKER PRIZE
To say this novel is “keenly anticipated is like saying Ben Stokes played a rather useful innings for England”, said Allison Pearson in The Daily Telegraph. The Testaments is already “hot favourite” to win this year’s Booker Prize, and last week it generated “headlines around the world” when Amazon shipped early copies to US readers, breaking the publisher’s embargo. The reason for the frenzy is that it marks Atwood’s long-awaited return to Gilead, the setting of her 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which envisaged America as a theocratic republic in which fertile women are put to work as “handmaids” (“brood mares who must submit to ritualised rape by their masters”). Recently, the novel has attracted a new generation of readers, driven partly by its perceived relevance in the age of Donald Trump and #MeToo, and partly by the “lushly filmed” TV adaptation. It is “one of the most significant sequels in publishing history”. Does it live up to the hype?
Yes it does, said Alex Clark in The Guardian. Returning to Gilead can’t have been easy, yet the result “more than justifies Atwood’s Booker Prize shortlisting”. The action takes place a decade and a half after The Handmaid’s Tale, and unfolds through three overlapping narratives. Two concern young girls: Daisy, who lives in Canada, and whose parents are involved in a resistance movement that arranges for women to be smuggled out of Gilead; and Agnes, the daughter of a Gilead official. The third is about Aunt Lydia, who is one of the most powerful people in the Republic’s command structure, but who, it emerges, is actually attempting to destabilise the regime.
Compared with its more allusive and ambiguous predecessor, The Testaments can seem “contrived and heavily stage-managed”, said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. Yet this doesn’t much matter, because Atwood’s “sheer assurance as a storyteller” ensures that it is a “propulsive” read. It is “noteworthy” that Atwood has picked up plot lines that only came to exist because of the TV series, said Sam Sacks in The Wall Street Journal. Agnes did not feature in The Handmaid’s Tale, but did in the small-screen adaptation. I can’t think of another case in which a writer has “formally legitimised” a TV adaptation in this way, and the result is that The Testaments seems less like a work of literature than a piece of entertainment, a “new instalment in a multimedia franchise”. It may be an “engaging” page-turner, but it also seems like a novel written primarily “for the fans”.